September 28, 2020

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Hold up, Jets fans; it ain't over till Hellebuyck, Wheeler, Connor say it is

Opinion

EDMONTON — It would be so easy to count the Winnipeg Jets out right now, to kick them when they're down and start penning the post-mortem on a most unusual season that seems on the verge of expiring almost as quickly as it returned.

They can't kill a penalty to save their lives. The power play suddenly has the potency of a peewee team. Their star goaltender is struggling. Key offensive players have been missing in action. And the injuries. Oh, the injuries, which leave you wondering just what exactly Paul Maurice and his crew did to anger the hockey gods.

Consider this: If Mathieu Perreault is added to an injury list that already includes Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton, coach Paul Maurice will be down to his final two forward options. Does he turn to David Gustafsson, the fresh-faced rookie from Sweden, or Mark Letestu, the aging journeyman coming off a career-threatening heart infection for Thursday's must-win Game 4? At this point, I'm not sure it really matters.

"So they better scratch and claw for everything that they get." – Connor Hellebuyck

I'm starting to worry that, as one of the few scribes actually covering these games in person, I'm going to be pressed into emergency duty if the body count keeps rising. My best attribute would be as a stay-at-home defenceman. In the sense that the only way I could help any hockey team, at any level, would be to stay at home.

The puck hits the post behind Connor Hellebuyck during the first period Tuesday.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The puck hits the post behind Connor Hellebuyck during the first period Tuesday.

So that's it, right? Pack up the bags, turn off the lights and get ready to burst out of the bubble and get back to summer as regularly scheduled. The Jets haven't been here in the hockey hub of Edmonton for a long time, nor have they had a particularly good time.

Milan Lucic is checked by Blake Wheeler and Cody Eakin Tuesday.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Milan Lucic is checked by Blake Wheeler and Cody Eakin Tuesday.

Not so fast.

Sure, the vultures may be circling in the skies above Rogers Place. But if there's one thing we've learned about these 2019-20 Jets, they have a rather endearing ability to flip the script. Just when you think you know which direction their story is headed, along comes another unexpected plot twist.

And I'm here to tell you there are several reasons to remain optimistic, despite trailing the Calgary Flames 2-1 in their best-of-five qualifying series. Winning one elimination game, let alone two, is a big challenge for the shorthanded squad. But it says right here they absolutely have the ability to get it done.

Let's start with Connor Hellebuyck, the Vezina Trophy finalist who isn't very happy these days. He struggled mightily in Tuesday's Game 3 defeat, including a costly behind-the-net blunder that gifted Calgary a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

As we've seen countless times all year, Hellebuyck has the ability to steal a game on his own. Just ask the San Jose Sharks about that. Hellebuyck has also played some of his best games after some of his worst. And he was spitting fire after the 6-2 loss, blaming himself for what transpired and basically channelling his inner Hulk Hogan and cutting a pro wrestling promo on his opponent, stopping just short of ripping off his shirt in the process.

"I’ve got to use this and I plan on using this. This was an upset for me. I don’t see it being easy for them at all for the rest of the series. So they better scratch and claw for everything that they get," said Hellebuyck.

Kyle Connor is stopped by goalie Cam Talbot Monday.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Kyle Connor is stopped by goalie Cam Talbot Monday.

Whatcha gonna do, brother, when Hellebuyck-mania runs wild on you?!

I've always admired how candid and quote-worthy the Jets netminder can be, and his post-game comments are the stuff of sportswriter's dreams. Thing is, Hellebuyck is more than capable of backing up his words with actions, and I'd bank on seeing his best in Thursday's must-win Game 4.

Will it be enough? Maybe not, but that's where Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor enter the picture. Remember them? They were first, and third, respectively in Jets scoring this past season, with 60 goals and 78 assists between them. Through three playoff games so far, they each have one lousy assist.

With Scheifele and Laine big question marks to return to the lineup, the Jets need a lot more from Wheeler and Connor, who happen to be the two highest-paid players on the team. And if you're a glass half-full kind of person, you have to figure the dynamic duo are due to break out, no?

No question the Flames are focusing on that top line, which now includes Andrew Copp skating in Scheifele's place, but a strong performance or two could go a long, long way to extending Winnipeg's season.

And that's especially true when it comes to their work on the woeful power play, which has gone just 2-for-15 in the series so far, with a shorthanded goal against. Woof. The Jets still have plenty of firepower up front even with the injury absences, including a red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, who has scored in two consecutive games. There's no reason it should be this bad, and the club spent Wednesday away from the rink going over video trying to figure out what adjustments they need to make.

Winnipeg and Calgary have been pretty even during five-on-five play, which has been in short quantity, given the whistle-happy referees. And the Jets have received some nice depth contributions from the likes of Copp, Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic, the kind you need in the playoffs to be successful. So all hope is not lost.

From everything I've seen and heard, this is not a team feeling sorry for itself, even if they have every excuse in the world to do so. And with their backs against the wall and no room for error, they're going to have to find a way to overcome yet another healthy dose of adversity.

A defiant Hellebuyck finding his form. A resurgent Wheeler and Connor finding the net. And winning the special-teams battle, as they did in Monday's gutsy Game 2 victory. Add it all up and you have a recipe for potential success.

It's not going to be easy. But then again, nothing ever has been with the Jets team. In that sense, maybe they have the Flames right where they want them.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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